As a premise for a children’s book, it may be the most perverse ever. Each year on “Reaping Day,” kids between 12 and 18 are drafted by lottery to participate in a reality TV show that the entire dystopian world of Panem is obliged to watch. Two chosen children from each district are whisked away to the Capitol, where they’re coiffed and styled into iconic eye candy, coached toward mediagenic self-revelation, and finally dropped into an arena mined with natural disasters and scarce resources to play “the game”: killing each another. The winner? The last child alive.

Violent? Definitely. Allegorical and deeply meaningful? Depends on whom you ask. One thing not in dispute is that The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, which has been translated into 26 languages and has more than 26 million copies in print, is a recipe for addictive reading, not to mention bonanza profits. (Advanced tickets for the movie of the first book, to be released March 23, have already sold out, trumping sales for the Twilight series.)

Mainlining literature

The Hunger Games is just the latest triumph of blood and gore to hit the children’s literary market. In recent years, the rabid passion for zombies, vampires, and wizards has added countless rows to the growing library of kiddy crack lit. We all want our children to be great bookworms, but as I watched my sixth grade daughter descend into virtual-mayhem mania, I had my misgivings.

For weeks after my daughter finished the books, she behaved like a “muttation” roaming the arena — a man-mutated creature programmed with diabolical intentions. Snarling at her family’s attempts at normal communication, she’d retire to her room where we could hear her chortling in her own private Panem, re-reading compulsively, reliving lines, “STUPID, Katniss, that was so STUPID!” In public, she remained possessed, muttering ad nauseam apropo of nothing: “Oh my God, Haymitch! How could you?!”

Turns out she’s not alone. One fellow Hunger Games fan compared the book to the “cocaine of literature,” contending that it should come with a warning., a website dedicated to showcasing young adult literature, is one of several sites chronicling “Post-Panem Depression” with symptoms such as trouble concentrating, flashbacks, irritability, and tendency to re-read certain passages.

Sickened by the concept of the Hunger Games, I was nevertheless eager to keep the lines of communication open with my budding tween (the only line suddenly available). So I broke down and read the books. The result was a weird cocktail of pleasure and discomfort. Collins has a knack for the deft image, the comic plot twist, and her portrait of Katniss — the young huntress who volunteers for the Hunger Games to protect her little sister Prim — shimmers with contradictions that make her both an ideal action hero and an excellent everyteen: strong yet confused, emotional yet guarded, courageous yet as my daughter puts it: “a dork.” Even so, I had to squint through a lot of the violence — which included the heroine pawing through the warm chunks of flesh of her recently departed friend, a young man slowly being mauled by wolves, and kill scenes like the following:

“The boy from District 1 dies before he can pull out the spear. My arrow drives deeply into the center of his neck. He falls to his knees and halves the brief remainder of his life by yanking out the arrow and drowning in his own blood.”

When I informed my daughter that I wasn’t a fan of such scenes, her eyes shone with renewed zeal: “You don’t like the violence, Mommy? You really don’t like it?” Suddenly my sensitive child seemed a lot less sensitive for her reading experience.

Is all reading good reading?

And that’s when I really began to question the value of these books. Is there a threshold, after which our willingness to sink literary talons into young readers is actually a point of no return? Now that the YA category is being popularized among preteens, children’s literature includes a lot of books ostensibly not written for children.

In my family of peacenik iconoclasts (scant TV, no violent movies or video games, ever) my daughter eschewed the fourth and fifth grade reading obsessions that tore through my daughter’s peer group: Harry Potter, Twilight, The Uglies. We got no reprieve, of course, from the class-assigned books that seemed equally hell-bent on using violent extremes to engender a love of reading. In The Breadwinner, a children’s novella about life under the Taliban, the two young characters follow a crowd into a stadium thinking they are going to see a soccer match but instead watch a thief get his arm chopped off and a stray dog run away with the arm in his mouth. Then they read Zach’s Lie, about a kid whose family is stalked by thugs when they enter the witness protection program after his drug-running father flips for the CIA. In all these books there may be educational arguments — the depiction of violence teaches kids something about politics in another country, or um, best practices when dealing with Columbian cartels. And indeed, as an anti-tyranny epic with a strong female protagonist, one could argue that the blood in The Hunger Games isn’t spilled in vain, but has a higher purpose in the service of a nonviolent message.

Yet as I watched my 12-year-old become lost in Panem, I couldn’t help wondering what the hyperbolic violence was doing to her brain. In the online discussions about violence in children’s literature, an oft-stated defense is that it’s just a modicum of the violence children are exposed to from film, television, and video games. There’s no argument there — though it doesn’t apply to my kids. According to the American Psychiatric Association, by age 18 American kids will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 violent acts. And with the added bonus of violent video games like Call of Duty (where kids giddily earn points mowing down civilians who beg for their lives), there’s no doubt that violence is largely in the eye of the medium.

Does violent media beget violent kids?

There has been decades of research on the effects of violent media on children’s brains and just as many years of controversy about the results. For some the evidence is conclusive: according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the past three decades of “[l]ongitudinal, cross-sectional, and experimental studies have all confirmed [the] correlation between televised violence and violent behavior among youth. One 15-year study published in Developmental Psychology found that exposing children to high levels of media violence led to higher levels of young adult violent behavior regardless of socioeconomic status, intellectual capacities, or earlier levels of aggression. (Men described as high TV-violence viewers were more than three times as likely to have been convicted of a crime compared to other men; high TV-violence viewing females were four times more likely to have beaten, punched, or choked another person.)

Despite what some researchers conclude is overwhelming evidence that violent media has a significant negative impact on children’s brains, many of these studies were based on self-reported data and therefore subject to criticism. But recently with the use of MRIs, researchers are getting a direct picture of how different kinds of stimuli affect the chemistry of young brains. In one recent study, MRIs of adolescents who played violent video games contrasted markedly from those who played nonviolent video games. In the group playing violent games, the amygdala was more stimulated — the area of the brain associated with aggression and fear and there was less activation in areas of the prefrontal cortex (the region linked with self-control and decision making). In contrast, the group playing nonviolent video games used more of the pre-frontal cortex. Other MRI studies have found that repeated violent imagery leads to desensitization — that is, after a while violence isn’t really very alarming and doesn’t set off the same neurological response.

Does this mean children who watch, read, or play violent media will turn out to be sociopathic monsters? There’s no evidence of that. But we do know that violent media does affect the brain, in the moment and over the long term. “Although brain imaging studies are sparse at this point, the behavioral evidence that violent media increases aggressive behavior, thought, and emotions is overwhelming (we are looking at several hundred studies here),” explains Maren Strenziok, researcher of violent video games at George Mason University, adding that studies have found that the likelihood of showing increased aggression after exposure to media violence is about equal to that of getting lung cancer from smoking. “Nobody would deny that smoking causes lung cancer, but a lot of special interest groups have been downplaying the negative effects of violent media.”

So what’s a parent to do whose children like a steady diet of thrill ’em, kill ’em media? Strenziok is unequivocal. “My philosophy is better safe than sorry. Think about it, there is certainly no evidence that viewing violence promotes emotional health or contributes positively to their overall development. I think that parents are asking themselves the wrong question. Rather than trying to find evidence that their child will get away with no harm when being exposed to violent media, I think the question to be asked here is does it promote their child’s development? I am sure that most parents would answer this question with no.” For a rollup of myths and facts about media violence research by one of the leading psychologists who think the evidence is irrefutable, check this out.

Grim children’s literature since Grimm

But isn’t literature different? There’s little scientific study about the effects of violent books, perhaps in part because they are nothing new. As long as there has been children’s literature, there have been violent stories. One need only revisit the original Grimm fairytales or Aesop’s fables to fill up on grisly scenes of death and mayhem, all presumably crafted with a didactic purpose. There’s a rational argument that violence in children’s literature (and even other media) exposes children in a safe (and ideally instructive) manner to the violence that exists in the world and the dark realities they’ll face in adulthood. YA novelist Julie Hahnke offers a guide in assessing the violence in children’s literature via four criteria: is the violence necessary, age-appropriate, not overly graphic, and do the main characters respond to it appropriately (shocked or appalled, not enthusiastic or casual)? In this context, The Hunger Games passes on the 1st and 4th of these, but not on the 2nd and 3rd.

Blaming any medium for the wholesale creation of societal ills is tough to argue. Logically, by extension, most Nordic countries — where there’s scant real violent crime but little censorship of the media — would be far more crime-ridden. On the other hand, even those who oppose censorship in their own children’s media diets have their limits. Few parents will show their five-year-olds Texas Chainsaw Massacre, no matter how leery they are about the effects of violent media on a child’s brain.

In the end, there’s no single right answer applicable to all ages or all children, but it’s worth looking at what your children are reading because even the school-assigned texts may be a far cry from the books that populated your childhood. In discussions of The Hunger Games, conversations revolve around whether the book is too violent for teens. But from my experience, it is being read by far younger kids. My daughter was introduced to the series when her sixth grade teacher read it aloud. And I recently read about a fourth grade teacher reading it aloud to his class, too. But concerned parents proceed with caution: the defenders of Panem are fervent.

On a Scholastic (also the publisher) forum discussing a mother who tried in vain to get The Hunger Games removed from her daughter’s middle school curriculum, dozens of commenters from Team Hunger seethed like angry trackerjackers. “I want to strangle that lady!” one devotee writes. Other fans attempted to prevent the argument from self-combusting: “I would just like to mention that saying you’d like to kill [the mother] isn’t the best way of convincing her we’re not being desensitized.” Good point.

“You don’t like the violence Mommy?” That glassy-eyed question paralyzed me for a moment, but then I quickly saw that somewhere beyond those dilated eyes was my daughter, who wanted a real answer connected to a real conversation (from her Mommy no less). What could have been a moment of alienation for both of us turned into an opportunity — to talk and disagree and talk some more. And the value of that I don’t need any studies to understand.

Next: One R-rated movie you want might your child to see

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